From prank calls to hacking: 10 telephone talking points

By Marilynn McLachlan

The first ever telephone call took place 138 years ago today. Marilynn McLachlan takes a look at some memorable telephone moments.
Marilynn McLachlan takes a look at some memorable telephone moments. Photo / Thinkstock
Marilynn McLachlan takes a look at some memorable telephone moments. Photo / Thinkstock

On this day in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell spoke the now infamous words to his assistant: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you" into a transmitter. When Watson heard the words clearly, it proved Bell's invention worked and in doing so, forever changed the way the world communicates.

1. Chat Person-To-Person

New Zealand was quick to adopt the new technology with a Dunedin electrician, Charles A. Henry, organising a 'talking telegraph' trial after building a receiver and transmitter. The Otago Daily Times wrote that the trial was 'simply marvellous'. In 1878 a Mrs. Sheeby received New Zealand's first personal call from a farm in Roxburg, starting our devotion to telecommunications.

2. Staying In Touch Overseas

Initially, calls could only be made within a city but by 1915 in America and the 1930s in New Zealand calls were made from city to city.

On November 25, 1930, Sir Apirana Ngata, the minister of Native Affairs spoke on the phone to Australia's acting Prime Minister, beginning New Zealand's ability to make international toll calls.

3. Help Me Now!

The invention of the telephone enabled people access to emergency services quicker than ever before. The first emergency number deployed was 999 in London in July 1937.
New Zealand was a little slower, launching its 111 service in Masterton and Carterton in 1958. It was subsequently rolled out around the country.

4. Creating Great Fiction

Not knowing who is at the other end of the telephone has been used as a way to build suspense in films since Alfred Hitchock's 1954 film Dial M for Murder. Starring Grace Kelly as a cheating wife, her husband plots her murder by having her answer a call, allowing a murderer to strangle her.

Grace Kelly in 'Dial M for Murder'.
Grace Kelly in 'Dial M for Murder'.

Since then there have been many spine-tingling phone conversations, including the opening of scene Scream and the chilling call made by Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling in the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs.

5. Child's Play

Any parent of a toddler quickly learns how they love to have 'pretend' phone calls - even to someone in the room. The first toy phone was the Chatter Telephone, a pull-along toy released by Fisher-Price in 1962. With its smiling face, bright colours and eyes that move up and down when it is pulled along it quickly became a family favourite and is Fisher-Price's best-selling product.

6. Catching Criminals

Working late one night at the Watergate Complex in 1972, security guard Frank Wills noticed tape on a door handle, preventing the door from latching shut. He removed the tape. An hour later he noticed they were taped up again and, suspecting intruders, placed a call through to the police sparking one of the biggest scandals in US political history, leading to the toppling of President Richard Nixon.

Technology has continued to evolve and phones are used to catch criminals by monitoring phone calls, tracking movements with the inbuilt GPS systems, footage taken of crimes or criminals by witnesses. Some clueless criminals implicate themselves by filming their misdemeanours, and posting to the internet.

7. The Joke's On You

The anonymity of landlines gave tricksters the opportunity for making prank calls. Perhaps the most famous telephone prankster is Bart Simpson, whose calls to Moe's Tavern were a popular feature of The Simpsons.

Bart Simpson from the television series 'The Simpsons'.
Bart Simpson from the television series 'The Simpsons'.

From the annoying hang-up call to the more serious hoaxes, prank calls have been in decline since the 1990s with the arrival of caller ID.

8. Blossoming Romance

Stevie Wonder melted hearts around the world with his 1984 release of I Just Called To Say I Love You. The phone is now a regular conduit for loved up couples.

9. Diminishing Privacy

The "Squidgygate" phone recordings of Princess Diana and James Gilbey, followed a couple of weeks later by the "Camillagate" between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in 1992 were two of the earliest publicised phone hacks of celebrities.

Since then it was revealed that many journalists from News of the World and other publications had been hacking phones to gather information for their stories. Public outcry, police investigations and advertiser boycotts saw the closure of the 168-year old paper in 2011.

Government collection of metadata continues to grow, with New Zealand passing the GCSB bill in August last year enabling the gathering of information for information assurance and cyber security, foreign intelligence and assisting other agencies.

10. An Almighty stuff-up

In the 2003 film Bruce Almighty producers bucked Hollywood protocol of using *555 for numbers used in movies and screened a number purporting to belong to "God". Unfortunately for them, it was a real number - and pranksters inundated the innocent victim. The number was changed when it was released on video.

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